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June 4, 2007

Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class

Neil Henry (ex-Washington Post, now at Berkeley J-School) wants reparations from Google for what it's done to news.

I hope the San Francisco Chronicle keeps Neil Henry’s essay—Google Owes Big Journalism Big Time—free and clear of any pay walls. Link rot must not be allowed to set in, for this is a document.

Henry teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, after a distinguished career at the Washington Post. He has a new book out, American Carnival (“Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media.”) According to this account, Henry almost became dean at the Berkeley J-School.

Neil Henry has a grievance:

I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in “old” media could not afford to pay them.

And for that grievance there is to be redress:

It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism’s plight.

Fund our journalism schools. Our professional associations. Maybe our newspapers. We’re on life support because of you, and others like you. So… support! He suggested that the Society of Professional Journalists, keepers of this code, get Google money. (Same society gave a First Amendment award to Judy Miller.)

Romenesko did his part, running superb replies from Douglas McLennan, editor of and Matthew R. Baise, online editor of the Baltimore Sun.

Baise said he was seeing it more and more: Journalists suggest a “shakedown” of Google “in which we teach that nasty little search engine a lesson and wrestle back some of those dollars that are rightfully ours.”

These are calls for justice within the shifted kingdom of news— issued by journalists “at” others. (Another letter at Romenesko called for a class action suit against Google, led by the newspaper unions. See Steve Boriss on that idea.) The texts are written with a sense of grievance, which is truly felt. To the grievance there is grafted a description of the Internet or one its parts, and in this description (by the old timer) you can often hear things. Like when Neil Henry talks of…

powerful news aggregators such as Google and Yahoo whose computerized search robots harvest riches of news and other content provided by others — and generate billions of dollars in annual profits for their owners.

Robots harvesting the goods made by newsmen and peddling the product as their news to enrich the owners of the robots— a bunch of computer scientists! What a reveal.

Google News and Yahoo News are both aggregators but they work in different ways. Google uses algorithms to identify top stories while Yahoo News has human editors for that. (See JD Lasica.) Neil Henry does not know this because if he knew this he would not have grouped Google and Yahoo together as equally robotic.

I think he’s saying, “The details don’t interest me. I get what’s going on here.”

No, you don’t. That’s Ryan Sholan at his blog, Invisible Inkling. If there’s anyone the news business needs right now, it’s people like Ryan, who is completing his masters at San Jose State. He’s also working at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, a new media guy, paying his dues and hoping for big journalism glory some day. I know how he thinks because I read his blog. His message to Neil Henry:

Get over it, professor. Blaming search engines is like blaming the library. “Oh no, please don’t let readers actually find stories from my newspaper and then click through to my site to read them, anything but that!” Forget it.

Do read Sholin’s 10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head. It’s a grad student lecturing a J-professor about doing his reporting. He properly seethes. “Newspaper classifieds suck and they have for years.” “Your major metro newspaper could probably use some staff cuts.”

Jeff Jarvis tried to school Henry: “Google is far and away the most productive means of sending audience to news sites.” Bigger than Drudge. “It’s up to the news sites to then make the best of that audience.”

Jeff sent me to this fascinating post from Heather Hopkins about online news flows in the UK. “Most visitors leave Google News to go to another news provider,” she writes. Last week, BBC News was the top recipient of traffic, getting 3.6% of Google News’ traffic, followed by 2.0% to Guardian Unlimited, 2.0% to Times Online, 1.4% to Daily Mail and 1.0% to Sky News. Fully 28% of visits from Google News UK went to Print Media websites, 7% to Sports, 6% to Television and 4% to Business Information.

“I’d love to see some Google money come to my school,” said Jarvis of CUNY. “But I don’t think they owe us reparations.”

Scott Karp is far more polite about Henry’s “fundamental misunderstanding of what is responsible for the collapse of the newspaper business.” Technology isn’t destroying journalism. “It’s simply destroying the business that subsidized journalism.” Finding another source of subsidy is what we should all be doing. But:

Demonizing technology, as Professor Henry does when he references the “threat ‘computer science’ poses to journalism’s place in a democratic society” is, with all due respect, rather medieval.

Karp thinks it’s an interesting question whether Google and other online companies should start subsidizing journalism. Maybe they should. “Google might run free training for young journalists to teach them how to thrive in a search-driven, online media world — particularly if these journalists want to try their hands at independent online journalism.” That would be blogging.

Not what Neil Henry had in mind, I think…

I can’t help but fear a future, increasingly barren of skilled journalists, in which Google “news” searches turn up not news, but the latest snarky rants from basement bloggers, fake news reports from government officials and PR cleverly peddled in the guise of journalism by advertisers wishing only to sell, sell, sell.

He’s right: he can’t help, except in the fear department.

I read Henry’s column as a kind of valedictory, a farewell speech in which he turns away from a fearful future and from students who are nervous but excited about it, admitting to the Ryan Sholin generation that it would get no help—and certainly no guidance—from Neil Henry. He’s bitter about the online world and its unjust economy of news, resents but resolutely will not grok it, and he wants the people there (“online…”) to know what they’re destroying.

Adding to the downbeat feel is the title, which isn’t Google Owes Big Journalism Big Time (that’s mine) but… “The decline of news.” The essay contains no links. It isn’t aware that it’s published online. It’s not only about decline in the press but a live demo. Henry’s book was published the same day his op-ed appeared at the Chronicle, May 29th. But do you think there is a link to the announcement?

My impression: we’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening. And if their “who lost journalism?” call-for-justice op-ed disappears behind a pay wall so the search engines can’t find it, silencing that call online, the beautiful thing is they won’t know it happened, and they won’t understand why it matters because they never got how Google works in the first place.

It’s clown time for the curmudgeons because they’ve lost the smart people who can save the business the curmudgeons had tried to save by jeering at the stupids and their attempted changes.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Steve Levy of Newsweek continues the thread… When Bloggers Say No to a Simple Chat. It’s about the fate of the interview when sources have more power, a subject I have explored in previous posts. Jeff Jarvis (who is quoted, as I am) replies to Levy: Alas, the interview.

We’re one, but we’re not the same, we’ve got to carry each other, carry each other… Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0: “I just went to the New York Times homepage and saw that political reporter Katharine Seelye is “live-blogging” the democrat’s New Hampshire Debate. Newspapers and other mainstream media have had blogs for quite a while, but this strikes me as the moment when blogs officially went mainstream and when journalism crossed a tipping point of evolving into the digital age.”

So it’s official. Funny, I identified an “official” moment like that two+ years ago, in the beginning passages of Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over. I like Scott’s milestone, too. Part of Seelye’s beat is to do “web only” stuff, so it makes sense. (I know because she told me when she interviewed me about OffThe Bus.Net)

Bradley J. Fikes at The Festering Swamp: “A simple code added to a newspaper’s Web site will block Google News from searching its site.”

More on the curmudgeon class

Here’s a little unresolved episode that shows what they’re made of. See The Globe and Mail’s Jack Kapica: The new New Journalism beats up on the old. It’s his report on day one of the Mesh conference in Toronto. In the comments I challenged him on his statement about a running theme of the day: “that bloggers can, in fact, easily replace news organizations, ousting professional news reporters with freelance amateurs and opinion-mongers.”

I doubted anyone said that, so I asked for some quotes or names. In good curmudgeonly fashion, Kapica’s post had ridiculed a belief so widespread it isn’t necessary to do the work and identify any believers. (Neil Henry did the same thing; they all do.) Mesh panelists Rachel Sklar (“appalled at Jack Kapica’s completely misrepresentative, agenda-driven, selective, and flat-out wrong rendering”) and Cynthis Brumfield (“was he even in the room?”) objected in the comments. I asked Canadian new media blogger Tony Hung, who live blogged the conference, whether he had heard anything resembling “bloggers can easily replace news organizations.” He emailed back. “No, not at all.” Kapica also got some names wrong.

As I told Kapica, “while I can find dozens of statements like yours, from skeptical journalists ridiculing the ‘replacement’ thesis, it is very hard to find anyone who advances that thesis. So if someone at the Mesh conference did so, it would be news. And I would like to invite that person to expand on the idea at my blog… If there is someone. And I don’t think there is.” He’s apparently a one-way medium. Five days later, there’s no correction, no reply from Kapica, and the Globe and Mail staff, which moderates comments, has stopped posting mine.

UPDATE, JUNE 5. “The days of media preaching unchallenged from a pedestal are far behind us.” After I emailed a subeditor there, I got this reply from the editor of the Globe and Mail website:

Hi Jay:

Peter forwarded your email to me, I’m the editor of I have encouraged Jack to respond to the comments and criticism his assessment of Mesh has generated.

I am also concerned that your comment was apparently dismissed. This is counter to our comments policy, which is designed to foster open debate and discussion between our readers and the journalists of The Globe and Mail. In 2005 we introduced a comment option on virtually every article we publish — blogs and traditional news stories — and currently we get around 100,000 user comments each month. I certainly do not want anyone to get the impression that is anything but supportive of a true dialogue. The days of media preaching unchallenged from a pedestal are far behind us.

Please email me the comment you wanted to submit and I will make sure it gets on the site.

Angus Frame

Thanks, Angus, and thanks for going on-the-record. Nothing yet at Cyberia. But Kapica is now on notice that he should respond. Game on, curmudgeon.

UPDATE AGAIN (June 5): Kapica has replied: Mesh Conference redux. “The ‘old media’ side of me was hesitant to reply; I had my say, and I thought it wise to cede the floor to my critics.” “…I’m a little surprised about the anger I see in the letters complaining about my blog. A blog is a place for opinion, a point of view, and I’m sure people like those writing their comments to me would be among the first to defend that principle.” Read the rest.

AND AGAIN (June 6) Okay, Kapica wants me to repeat what I said (“Now I could be wrong. I wasn’t there.”) in the comments at his blog: I wasn’t there, at Mesh, in Toronto. So I have to rely on what correspondents like him tell me. He thinks that since I wasn’t there I shouldn’t ask questions like, “Jack, did anyone really say that?”

But at least we’re having a conversation with a live curmudgeon!

My favorite part of Mesh Conference redux is its curmudgeonly way with links. “I’ve been away from the office for a few days, and could not answer the e-mails that demanded I reply to criticisms of my take on the Mesh Conference.” Instead of going here the link goes here, so you aren’t really at the take that took the criticism. Likewise, Kapica attempts to refute arguments and criticisms he doesn’t link to, as if unaware of good practices in blogging.

Newsroom curmudgeons on both sides of the pond! Reacting to this post, Andy Dickinson, who teaches digital jounalism at the University of Central Lancashire, says “it’s a shame that we are just waiting for these guys to drop off the end of the conveyer belt. Journalistically they have a lot to offer.”

Self-shrinkage among the curmudgeons.…Bryan Murley at Innovation in College Media: “There are plenty of good journalists out there who are downsizing themselves because they won’t (that’s right - won’t) learn new skills, adapt to change.” See also Paul Conley, Failing to learn, failing to teach.

Brad DeLong: its a Neil Henry vs. Jay Rosen Future-of-Journalism Smackdown!

I like Steve Yelvington’s description…Neil Henry’s recent “you kids get off my lawn” op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle

Howard Owens:

If you’re one of those people who think, “Gosh, darn it, Google should give us some money.” Or, “Gosh darn it, if only we didn’t give our content away for free,” then I have a suggestion for you: educate yourself before you start lecturing others on how modern journalism should work.

Entitlement and reparations. Jarvis replies, noting that at the recent D conference, “George Lucas lectured Chad Hurley and Steve Chen from YouTube, telling them that they should be funding a film school as reparations for pillaging the land of film with bad videos.”

What a sense of entitlement the old guard has. They want these people to just give them money. It’s not the kids who are acting like spoiled brats who want to sit back and be given things. It’s the old guys who want want the kids to give them money. Of course, the proper response should instead be to say, how can we work with these kids and all the wonderful things they are doing? And there’s the dividing line. Those who do stay young. Those who don’t fade off, curmudeons at twilight.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 4, 2007 1:23 AM